Paul Thomas Anderson does not have a “filmography”; he has a canon. The films he creates are enigmas: dryly funny, deeply sad, and almost always deserving of a rewatch (or five). In the 1990s, he made fast-paced films with flashy camerawork, montages, and heavy pop music, owing much to his many influences such as Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. But since his 1999 film Magnolia, which is about as ambitious a film as any 29-year-old could ever make, he has developed an inimitable style. He made perhaps the best movie of the century, There Will Be Blood, and two of the best films of the 2010s—The Master and Phantom Thread. These are films that feel like parables on power, control, dependency, and all-consuming American greed. They are everything a film buff could ever ask for. One thing they are not, though, is accessible; this is part of why half of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films since Magnolia failed to make back their budgets. His films are more complicated and dense than the average filmgoer is used to; especially The Master, which is the cinematic equivalent of a Thomas Pynchon novel.
Licorice Pizza is both like and unlike anything else that Paul Thomas Anderson has ever made. Yes, it is about power and control, specifically the way the men in Alana’s (Alana Haim, in a stunning debut) life use and manipulate her, but it is also laid-back and eminently watchable. The result? Paul Thomas Anderson’s most accessible film since Boogie Nights.
Licorice Pizza follows the life of Gary (Cooper Hoffman), a 15-year-old child actor, and his friendship with the 25-year-old Alana in the 1973 San Fernando Valley. Over the course of the film, the two start a waterbed company, meet various filmmaking legends, and fall in love. One of Licorice Pizza’s greatest successes is its recreation of the 1970s, which extends far beyond cars and fashion. The film has the pacing and even the graininess of a seventies movie; it is one of the most immersive period pieces that I have ever seen.
Anderson’s film is not just enjoyable for its technical mastery, however: it is also extremely entertaining. Hoffman and Haim have great chemistry together and hold their own against veterans like Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper; at no point in the film was it apparent that they had never acted before. Their charisma is boosted by a versatile script that balances its moments of melancholy with euphoric joy and laughs that feel truly earned. Licorice Pizza is a nostalgic ode to the 1970s, a delightfully fun romantic comedy that never trips over its ideas. Even the best of studio films now feels safe and controlled. That is not a decrying of political correctness, but rather the decrying of a studio system that, in its attempts to satisfy everybody, excites nobody. Licorice Pizza is the kind of film that should be watched by anyone who has ever watched an older film and thought “they don’t make them like that anymore.” They do, or, rather, Paul Thomas Anderson does.